salicylic acid vs lactic acid

Salicylic Acid vs Lactic Acid

As you age, your skin’s natural exfoliation process slows down which can leave your skin looking rough and dull with exaggerated fine lines and wrinkles. To keep your skin looking smooth and glowing, exfoliation is essential. 


With such a wide range of chemical exfoliants available, it can be hard to work out which one is right for you, or even to know what each exfoliant does. For example, which is better – salicylic acid vs lactic acid?


What’s the difference between salicylic acid vs lactic acid anyway?

whats the difference between salicylic acid vs lactic acid

Chemical Exfoliation

Chemical exfoliants increase the rate that your skin naturally exfoliates itself. They do this by breaking down the bonds that hold your dead skin cells together which makes it easier for them to be shed from the surface of your skin.


There are three main types of chemical exfoliant; alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs), beta-hydroxy acids (BHAs), and polyhydroxy acids (PHAs).


Salicylic Acid

Salicylic acid is the most well-known BHA and is derived from willow bark. It’s oil-soluble which means that it can easily get into your oil glands and help control the amount of oil your skin produces.


The main benefit of using salicylic acid for acne over other chemical exfoliants is its ability to penetrate and exfoliate your pores due to its oil-solubility. This means it’s also able to get into your oil glands and control the production of oil.


Other ways that salicylic acid benefit your skin are by:

  • Reducing inflammation and soothing skin.
  • Offering some protection from UV radiation.
  • Preventing the growth of bacteria (due to its acidic pH).
  • Increases collagen production to improve fine lines and wrinkles.


As it is very effective at reducing oil production, it can be quite drying and may not be suitable for dry skin.


Lactic Acid

Lactic acid is an AHA that’s made from the sugars found in milk (lactose). It is naturally present in your skin as part of your natural moisturizing factors (NMFs) which means that it makes an excellent moisturizer. 


It’s generally less irritating than other AHA’s, like glycolic acid (depending on product formulation), and, due to its hydrating properties, may be more suitable if you have drier skin.


The main benefit of AHAs, like lactic acid, is that they help exfoliate your skin. 


As a result of this, lactic acid also helps to:

  • Improve fine lines and wrinkles
  • Improve skin texture
  • Brighten skin
  • Reduce enlarged pores


Salicylic Acid vs Lactic Acid

The main difference between salicylic acid vs lactic acid is that one is an AHA and the other a BHA. AHAs are water-soluble while BHAs are oil-soluble.


Lactic acid also tends to work on the surface of your skin while salicylic acid also exfoliates your pores.


In addition, lactic acid is naturally found in your skin’s natural moisturizing factors (NMFs) and its bacteria found in your skin microbiome.


Overall, lactic acid may be the better option for overall skin health, especially if you have drier skin, but salicylic acid is the better choice if you have oily and/or acne-prone skin.


Can You Use Salicylic Acid and Lactic Acid Together?

Mixing acids together yourself is generally a big fat no-no – unless you want to destroy your skin barrier.


However, you may be able to find a product that contains both these ingredients for you and is formulated to reduce the risk of irritation.


You could also use a very low concentration of lactic acid to get the hydrating benefits without the exfoliating effects. For example, a moisturizer containing lactic acid that you could use following a salicylic acid serum.


Finally, you could alternate between salicylic acid vs lactic acid (e.g. using salicylic acid one night a week and using lactic acid two nights a week)


How To Use Salicylic Acid vs Lactic Acid

Both salicylic acid vs lactic acid should be used 1-3 nights per week for the best results while minimizing the risk of irritation.


AHA’s, like lactic acid, can increase your skin’s sensitivity to the sun which means that it’s very important to make sure you wear a broad-spectrum sunscreen everyday to prevent damage.


In contrast, salicylic acid can actually help protect your skin from sun damage – although it’s definitely no substitute for sunscreen!


Summary – Salicylic Acid vs Lactic Acid

Ones an AHA and ones a BHA – but which one is right for you?


If you’re torn between adding salicylic acid vs lactic acid into your routine the main thing to consider is which one is better suited to your skin type.


If you have dry or sensitive skin then lactic acid would be the better option. However, if you have oily, and/or acne-prone skin, salicylic acid would be more effective.

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